Thursday, August 19, 2010

An artist in his early 20s travels East

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret took leave from his sweatshop drafting table in the office of Peter Behrens in Berlin with his chum, Auguste Klipstein, en route through the Balkans to Constantinople, 1911. He was not yet 24 years of age. A comparable rising in the blood would launch the young Patrick Leigh-Fermor eastward, Nick Bouvier, Bruce Chatwin, and any and every schoolboy who could possibly go - such as a young friend of mine in Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, where many allow their hopeful gaze to lift from morning coffee, from cantilevered terraces on Telegraph Hill

What is all the fuss about? If one didn't know better, it would seem a subsidiary sun exerted a gravitation at a certain phase of life. If there were such a thing, it would have had to have been there for some time. It would evoke wonder, how it got there, and if the stories about it could be true; it would elicit a pilgrimage. Biding his time, the artist would find the occasion to embrace it.

The genius and the power of the thing are so well laid out in Jeanneret's travel notes - published 55 years later near the end of his life - that it would be unbecoming to embed them in any other context. But Jeanneret was an architect, one of the most youthful casts of the human mind; and his was impervious to nothing.

When Charles-Edouard did find his occasion to place upon a precipitous hill, a shrine of pilgrimage and of infinity in vista, it was 40 years later, and he had become Le Corbusier.

Among the very many risible and perplexingly ignorant speculations about Notre Dame du Haut, are the several which claim it to be an edifice of impenetrable derivation. Some allege it is Surrealist, that catch-all expression of critical incompetence, when its plain, eloquent debts are to the Minoan fundamentals, Cubism - and to the imperishable travel experience of the young artist. We have had that journal for 2 generations. It discloses everything one needs to know about how this masterpiece came to be deposited on this ground by this man. 

We will notice no columns, for example, but we'll have no doubt of how this speaks of Jeanneret's love for the Parthenon: If you look for the joints between the twenty sections of drums comprising the fluted columns, you won't find them, even by running a fingernail over these areas, which can only be differentiated by the slight irregularities in the patina that each marble has collected over time... Le Corbusier encased his columns within the walls, a seeming contradiction of the curtain they part for us in Classicism, which he supplied by elevating the roof to cast a clerestory light throughout the chapel, recalling his complaint of the Athenian roofline's overpowering weight (cf., Mies van der Rohe, New Gallery, Berlin, courtesy of Hedi Slimane). No, this is the idealist's confession, an epiphany of Minos by way of the art of his young life, and his own persistence in painting -


      What. What did the young genius see, climbing to the deck of his steamer en route to Piraeus from Salonika? What did he remember, in drawing after drawing, all his life; what had spoken so completely to him of his privilege, his obligation, to be human? 

In Salonika the day before yesterday, at midnight, by a beautiful moonlight, eight hundred of them were loaded on board. Eight hundred bulls from Thessaly. As they arrived, they were shoved in between the stockades. The joints of the crane grated; the powerful hook dropped rapidly down to their heads. Quick, a running noose around the horns, brief command, the hook is taken up again carrying away that enormous mass of meat hung by its horns. A large arc was inscribed; the mechanism released the chain; like a pot, the bull arrived at the end of the hold and fell on its back, rolling its bewildered eyes. It hardly had time to recover when, seized by the ring in its muzzle, it was firmly fastened... Once the sky completed its metamorphosis, the last burst of green died away on the water. A star finds some receptive facet of a wave to reflect.

Photographs of the Chapel lent by an anonymous friend
Photograph of the Parthenon courtesy Tassos Paschalis


  1. It is shortly after four in the morning and coming to your blog I have been fascinated by what you wrote - a perfect essay about an architect I have been too lazy over the years to understand but whose chapel Notre Dame du Haut has fascinated me since I first saw photos in the 1960s.

    I must compliment you on the graphic arrangement of image and text. Now I shall make some coffee and come back and re-read.

  2. Cher B, I am very grateful for your visit, and greatly curious about the bean you selected for appraising this entry! Since your first visit, it was reshaped by the deletion of a final sentence of argumentative text, under the admonition of a Tanzanian Peaberry.

  3. l. a beautifully written transporting- pgt

  4. Kind of you, LA; you would enormously appreciate the entire travel text.

  5. Here: you've done it.

    What you said you would do.

    "...some receptive facet of a wave to reflect."

    Pure grace, all of it.

  6. Well, you know, one can't make things up from thin air, as the creative ones do; one has to let the excellence of someone else's substance stir one's sorry consciousness. This is a sweet thing, this building; it's sort of shabby to resort to it as some go-between, when anyone can see that.